Let me rephrase that. Why such relatively-little attention paid on the other stuff in coffee?
Off the top of my head, let’s make a list of ten major distinct areas directly involving coffee. Note: I’m intentionally leaving out important social, environmental, or ethical issues here. Let’s just look at the coffee for a moment:
Coffee growing & cultivation
Export/import of coffee
Cupping & Quality Control
Retailing & Service
If you’re tempted to, don’t pick my list apart. That’s not the point.
The point is, how much innovation or “progress” in each of these ten areas have we seen in the past, let’s say ten again… ten years? Again, let me do this off the top of my head: on a scale of one to ten, for each one, let me assign a number rating the amount of advancement I’ve observed on a significant scale. 10 is high, 1 is low. I’m also going to re-order them in order of highest to lowest:
Export/import of coffee : 8
Coffee growing & cultivation : 8
Coffee processing : 8
Espresso : 6
Retailing & Service : 4
Brewing : 4
Cupping & Quality Control : 4
Grinding : 3
Roasting : 2
Packaging : 2
Looking back over my ratings there, I already want to re-think some of those, but I won’t. The specifics aren’t important.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case. Why the dominant focus on coffee-origin issues? There’s the obvious: coffee is grown, cultivated, processed, and exported from some of the poorest countries in the world. A major (if not majority) part of the limitations in coffee is due to just how much improvement potential there is in origin-work. It’s super-important work. This post is not in any way calling that into question.
But what about the low-rated stuff?
SCAA has a Symposium, now in its fourth year. There’s a tiny bit of consumer-marketing stuff at times, but it’s dominated by origin-specific content. The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI), now renamed World Coffee Research, is also origin-focused. In Europe, you see ASIC, but the consuming-world content included is not the sort of stuff that pushes forward on the low-rated stuff up there in my list. It’s more mass-market company oriented information.
Perhaps those low-rated elements simply need less improvement, either because they’re already high-quality, or because they’re less important. Maybe. But I have some other thoughts. Three thoughts to be exact:
The coffee farmers need our help. This is true. It’s also something people say far too often without any meaningful understanding about the actual farmers, what help they need, and how that relates to what you’re doing.
I might expound on this topic some more in the future, but for now: I think “helping the farmer” is definitely related to good intentions. I also think there’s some economic imperialism, subtle and inadvertent racism, and American/European exceptionalism involved. Okay, that’s some heavy shit I just threw down there, and I’ll do my best to get more into this topic in a future blog post.
How this relates to this particular post is that “helping the farmer,” in its myriad manifestations in our industry, gets the bulk of our focus because in many ways it’s the quick and easy answer to everything. “Quick and easy” is a relative term. I guess it begs: What’s not quick and easy?
Of all of the consuming-world stuff in the list, the highest-rated is espresso. There have been undeniable advances in espresso over the past decade. I believe that the reason is two-fold: it’s because of the World Barista Championship (and its repercussions throughout the specialty coffee world), and because enough people were able to admit that their espresso could be better.
How does roasting improve? Perhaps first, you have to identify poor-quality roasting. Identifying poor-quality roasting, in our too-small fishbowl of a specialty coffee sector, is pretty much the same thing as identifying poor-quality roasting in specific companies.
You know what I’m talking about. Anyone reading this blog post who has been in the industry for more than a couple years has talked shit to someone about a peer-group coffee company’s roasting, baristas, roast or espresso or filter coffee quality, etc. But this criticism, no matter how confident you might feel about its merits, occurs in private.
“I think Wrecking Ball’s Yirgacheffe single-origin espresso that I tasted last week had clear indications of scorching and tipping. You should check it out, taste the coffee, and find out what Trish is doing to make that roasting defect happen.” If this were true (which it’s obviously not), and we lived in a world where such a statement was not insulting, risky, and bridge-burning, there’d be a ton of learning to be had by all. How often do I have a hand-brewed cup of coffee at a renown coffee shop, and having observed the barista at work, could give 5 easy tips to make that coffee taste better? Sure, I COULD, but I never would. To do so would be a slap in the face of friends and colleagues and a major violation of the unwritten social contract we live under.
Criticizing origin-related stuff is easy. They’re poor farmers. They don’t know any better. Criticizing each other, that’s really difficult, if not impossible. But thankfully, public disparagement isn’t the only way people learn. Too bad we don’t have the other way either.
3) No Coffee Education
There is no tradition in our industry of institutionalized coffee professional education. There is no culinary-school degree equivalent in coffee. Save a few isolated botany-related programs, there is no university education to be had in coffee. World-champion baristas can have worked for 10 years in coffee, and they likely don’t know something as fundamental as the chemical process of de-esterification of chlorogenic acid or specifically why coffee particle “fines” happen during grinding.
One might object, “But many successful chefs didn’t go to culinary school!” That’s true. But they live in a world where culinary school exists, and decades of traditions have established fundamental concepts and principles, and a culture and history that is the foundation of an industry. Some chef may have skipped culinary school, yes, but there was something there that they essentially tested-out of. They paid their dues and learned all if not most of that stuff a different way.
Our industry is full of creative, passionate people. That’s for sure. It’s also full of college drop-outs (like me). It’s full of people who work at a coffeeshop for two weeks and read a little of James Hoffmann’s blog and then they’re out droppin’ knowledge on everyone who can’t run as fast as them. It’s full of people who bought a 3-pound coffee roasting machine but have little to no training on how to roast coffee and get interviewed by the local newspaper and are now deemed the town’s coffee expert.
Someday, hopefully not too far in the future, we’ll have some real coffee education. Yes, there are multiple places in the U.S. that teach “coffee business,” mixing basic skills and information with business and management training, but even those are at the most 5-day programs. I’m talking about something like a 2-year accredited degree or certification program. What would our industry look like if there were programs like that offered in a few places around the country and around the world? I would love to find out.
There needs to be a lot more researched, learned, taught, and improved in coffee varieties and agronomy and processing and such. Absolutely. But as I continue to meet baristas all over, I see passionate and intelligent people who are absolutely starved for some real learning that would support their careers. SCAA education is the best stuff out there right now, and it’s improved by leaps and bounds over the past 2-3 years, but it too still has a long, long way to go; and even then, I don’t know that this is a problem that SCAA is best equipped to solve. I think the market for formal coffee education needs to be developed. The conditions are more ideal for this sort of development in Asia than in North America or Europe, but that too is for another post someday.
So yeah. More focus on that stuff that needs more focus. More teaching. More learning. More skills development. More sharing. But over it all, more professionalism. But it’ll take one little baby step at a time. Etc. Etc. Blah-blah-blah. How are you supposed to end these blog-post things, eh?
So thanks to coffee ingénue Ben Kaminsky, I got my water measured.
To recap: a couple weeks ago, our water was reading at about 40-50 TDS (total impurities), the ‘book’ says about 150 ppm TDS is ideal for brewing coffee, and my water is now reading about 140-150 ppm TDS.
Ben measured my water to be at 8 grains of hardness.
hardness = Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) content
1 grain = 17.1 mg/L (mg/L and ppm are about the same)
8 grains of hardness = 137 mg/L CaCO3
“the book” says 3-4 grains (51-68 mg/L) of hardness are ideal for brewing coffee.
So my CaCO3 content is really high. CaCO3 is an acid buffer, and sure enough, the coffee tastes like you magically removed most of the pleasing acidity. I guess I’ll use bottled water again until the utility goes back to producing harder water. Apparently our water utility has changed where the water is being sourced (this sort of thing is very common for high-population areas).
At this point, I have more questions than before:
Why does “The Book” say 3-4 grains is ideal? Why not lower, or _no_ CaCO3?
Why is it 150 ppm TDS ideal? How much of this is a valid rule-of-thumb, and how much of this is a lowest-common-denominator?
I’m finishing typing this up as I’m waiting for a couple cups of coffee to cool. As an experiment, I brewed them with distilled water. I’ve also reached out to some of my water-expert colleagues out there. Stay tuned, more to come.
Was hanging out with young up-and-coming coffee superstar Alex Powar today, and while I was mouthing-off with some coffee brewing spiel, Alex added, “Yeah… I mean, we call them coffee particles after all…”
The general definition of a “particle” can be said to be an effectively one-dimensional thing. It’s a point in space. It’s a dot. The function of a “particle” (generally) renders mass, volume, and surface-area effectively irrelevant.
But a coffee ‘ground’ or ‘grind’ or whatever-you-wanna-call-it is not a one-dimensional point/dot. It’s a three-dimensional thing. There’s an outside and an inside. Understanding coffee brewing requires understanding the relationship between dissolution of the solids on the surface of the coffee grinds and the solids _inside_ the coffee grinds. The stuff on the surfaces dissolves quickly, and diffuses into solution as soon as it dissolves. The stuff on the inside dissolves a little more slowly, and needs to move through and out of the coffee grinds before entering solution.
In daily life, most everything that is as small as a coffee ‘particle’ is treated mostly the same: salt, sugar, sand, ground pepper, paprika, dirt, the size of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s brain, etc. These bits are small enough that the shape and size of individual particles are generally inconsequential in most common situations. There is, however, growing awareness of the size and shape of salt crystals, including research by food scientists trying to figure out how to make a saltier-tasting NaCl crystal in order to reduce sodium consumption in certain foods (notably, potato chips). But I digress.
Coffee bean fragments are not “particles.” They’re small, but the size and shape are indeed consequential… at least if you want to make good coffee.
So the question is: what do/should we call coffee bean fragments if not “particles?” Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to start using the term “coffee fragments.”
Normally, I’d be happy with a water TDS reading like this. I’m not right now. Why? Because it’s the water at home, and one week ago, it was 40ppm TDS, which is 100ppm less exactly one week ago.
About 140 ppm (parts per million) TDS is, according to all the relevant literature, about ideal for brewing coffee. With our the ~40ppm water (we live 30 minutes south of San Francisco), I’ve dialed in my coffee brewing to fantastic flavor. Juicy acidity, sweet, balanced, fantastic. 40ppm is supposed to be a bit low, but it’s been great.
I made coffee on the morning of January 1st. It was (again) juicy, bright, and sweet. I made coffee that same evening for a couple friends. The coffee tasted embarassingly flat, and while it had most of the sweetness, it was missing the juicy-acidity, like as if the tweeters on my audio speakers suddenly cut out. (Perhaps) needless to say, my technique is very dialed-in with my home-lab setup.
My mind raced through all of the variables. I’d been brewing with lower water temperatures lately… maybe I needed to pump things up to higher temps? Tried that… no dice. The grinder is fine. It was the SAME coffee… could it change SO much in 8 hours? No way. So what could change all-of-a-sudden like that?
I had lent my Myron-L water conductivity meter (pictured) to a friend, but I got it back from her yesterday because I had to assume something had changed with the water coming out of our taps. Sure enough, it was 100 ppm higher than my last measurement.
Still… if 140 ppm is ideal, why can’t I get (any of) these coffees as delicious as I know they can be? Perhaps the nature of the 100 ppm could reveal some clues? I mean, if that +100 ppm (or mg/L if you wanna get more nerdy) of impurities are made up of more neutralizing or buffering compounds, it would make some sense. I’ll be doing some more testing. Stay tuned!
Instead of a top-5 or 10 or whatever, how’s about just a list?
Best Burger I Ate All Year : Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea Pasadena Cafe, December 7, 2011, because it was just fantastic. FYI, I had a fair number of burgers this year.
Best Coffee Blog : Roaster Project because I appreciate the blogger’s sharing his journey with us as he’s learning and experimenting and designing and building. Sharing is good.
Best coffee-person’s Flickr Feed : Three Sevens because it’s a great mix of coffee pics, personal stuff, and just the right amount of Instagrammy content (not too much, not too little).
Best Media Coverage Of Coffee By The Lame-Stream Media : CNBC’s “The Coffee Addiction”
Best coffee iPhone app : (this space intentionally left blank)
Best Climate By Government Test : Redwood City, California
Best Overhyped Company in Coffee : Handsome Coffee Roasters because nobody could possibly live up to the amount of hype these boys got? Make no mistake, HUGE love and respect for Handsome and what they do, but the coverage left such a mark on our retinas that it feels like they had a reality-show this year, even though they were never on TV.
Best Underhyped Company in Coffee : Gimme! Coffee because they’re doing way more awesomer coffee and admirable stuff this year than the push they got in the industry.
Best IT-GIRL of specialty coffee : Julie Housh
Best Coffee Video : “Betty’s Coffee”
Best Coffee Gadget/Gear : Baratza Virtuoso + Esatto
Best Humongous Multi-Story Roaster-Retailer Shop : Sightglass Coffee
Best Barista Objectification For A Great Charity : WBC Champion 2012 Calendar
Best Shortest Coffeeshop Name : I Do, Seoul, Korea
Best Groan-inducing Coffeeshop Name : Seventh Wave Coffee, Seoul, Korea
Best Coffee Industry Event : Barista Guild of America Camp Pull-A-Shot
Best Sprudge.com Post : #YesEqual
and the 2011 Official Best Phenomenon in Coffee: The Guest Barista Shift because the concept of the guest-shift quietly came into its own this year. From random reports from around the country and around the world, to the BGA EC doing guest-shifts throughout PDX, the idea of a barista traveling to a shop that they do not work at and… well… work, is a remarkable thing to be sure. Not only does this reveal a certain amount of trust among peoples, it also means that there’s enough skill out there that it’s even possible. Imagining such a thing happening just a few years ago is ludicrous, and now it’s everywhere. And completely under-the-radar, as if it was always supposed to be like that. I can think of little else that is as much a display of passion for the craft as it is a symbol of the best parts of the barista community and specialty coffee, for the reasons stated and for many others. It makes my heart happy.
See you in 2012!
It’s not a law, but the rule of thumb is +10°C _doubles_ the rate of chemical reactions*.
If we take the ‘typical’ rule of thumb for coffee brew water temperature, we get:
195-205°F = Δ5.6°C ∴ ±~56% change in reaction rates, and every 1°F represents approximately 5% change in the rate of reaction. Think about this when your brain are hyper-focused a scale while trying to get your 350g brew water weight precision down to 1.0g (which is 0.2%).
*-the classic rule of thumb on rules of thumb is that thumbtimes it’s true, thumbtimes it isn’t.
Summary & Links:
The PRESS RELEASE we read on the show
YouTube link: Bree (the most popular Barista in the Pacific Northwest)
ICE Coffee “C” Futures
“At The Cupping Table” with Trish and Mie from 49th Parallel.
Ethiopian Coffee “BladderGate” (more reading) LINK: Portafilter Podcast #58 interview with Getachew Mengistie
The future of the Keurig single-cup coffee system (LINK: SF Bay Coffee OneCup)
Our Top-5 list of the Most Fascinating Things in Specialty Coffee in 2011
Duration: 1h 31m 19s
Critical analyses of coffee brewing methods involves taking a close look at what happens to individual coffee particles through the course of the brew. Every brew method involves three notable steps: Wetting, extraction, and separation. For some methods, extraction and separation happen mostly simultaneously (i.e., drip brewing). For other methods like cupping, french press, or Clever dripper (among others), extraction happens in a relatively static environment with separation occurring only (or mostly) at the end. It’s important to note: separation always includes extraction, often with an accelerated or more forceful dynamic.
During such methods, the fact that separation of grinds and brewed product (the beverage) happen at the end of the brew also means that the separation is occurring when the risk of over-extraction is high. You could stir the hell out of a brew at the beginning, but the cross-over into over-extraction usually won’t happen until later in the brew time.
MOST french press brews out there in the world are woefully underextracted, and not representative of this brew method’s potential. Worse, high-sludge content due to sloppy or poor technique, contribute what can only be called “false body,” that is, mouthfeel that comes from the super-fine coffee particles in the brew, rather than from the coffee itself. This is even further exacerbated by very dark roasted coffees, for which the roasty-toasty-burnt flavors are so soluble that they dominate an otherwise weak and underextracted brew. Grinding approximately for drip and brewing for under 5 minutes is generally leaving desirable flavors out of your brew.
So to make a delicious french press is to make a properly extracted french press. To do that, there are three key elements to consider:
1) proper wetting
2) the static environment
3) the separation dynamic
*1) Proper wetting*
In order for extraction to happen efficiently, the coffee particles must be free of gas, and surrounded by water on all sides. If coffee grounds are floating, or intermixed with gaseous bubbles, one or both of these requirements aren’t met. Gentle stirring, a prolonged pour of brew water, or a light plunge of the filter screen will help fully wet the coffee.
*2) The static environment*
A static extraction is both good and bad for the quality of the beverage. It’s good because certain brew methods can inflict too much kinetic energy (read: turbulence) on the coffee grounds which causes the surfaces of the coffee grounds to extract too quickly. A more static environment allows the solubles to diffuse more naturally into the brew water. Conversely, a static environment can cause the water around the coffee grounds to become over-saturated with solubles, which slows down the osmosis effect necessary to get the solubles out of the coffee particles.
So the solution is to extend the brew time beyond what’s typical for a drip-style brew, and grind significantly coarser. If an ideal drip-grind peak particle size is approximately 800μm (0.8mm) in diameter, something around 1200μm (1.2mm) is great for french press. Why?
The longer brew time is necessary to correspond with the static brew environment. However, since a longer brew time would normally lead to over-extraction, reducing the overall surface-area to coffee-mass ratio helps reduce the proportion of over-extraction in the brew. Remember, because coffee grinds are not truly uniform in particle size (unless we physically separated them and removed outlying particle sizes), a coffee brew is always a mixture of “good” brew, overextraction, and underextraction. The overall better-quality brews are simply higher-proportions of “good’ brew than not. The smaller-than-peak grinds will overextract. The larger-than-peak grinds will underextract.
So if a drip brew with 800μm grind sizes is a 4-minute brew, and a french press is a 6-minute brew, and we wish to reduce the surface-area-to-mass ratio of the coffee grinds accordingly, we come to a 1200μm grind size.
Obviously a coffee particle is not a sphere, but the results are the same if you use any shape as a model:
Volume of a sphere = 4/3 * π * radius-cubed
If diameter = 0.8mm, volume = 0.268 cubic mm
If diameter = 1.2mm, volume = 0.905 cubic mm
Surface area of a sphere = 4π * radius-squared
If diameter = 0.8mm, surface area = 2.01 square mm
If diameter = 1.2mm, surface area = 4.52 square mm
Volume / Surface area
@0.80mm, 0.268/2.01 = 0.133
@1.20mm, 0.905/4.52 = 0.200
∴ 0.133 : 0.200 :: 4 minutes : 6 minutes
So grind coarse (about 1.2-1.5 mm diameter peak grind), and 6-8 minutes. Yes, really. Not only does this coarseness work in consort with the brew method, grinding this coarsely results in a smaller proportion of extra-fine particles.
It may help to very-gently stir-up the coffee grounds at the end before you plunge, so that the flavor compounds that diffused out of the grinds sitting at the bottom of the glass (which you’ll have if you were successful in your wetting) will be added to the mixture, rather than just sitting at the bottom of the glass.
*3) The separation dynamic*
The separation between grinds and resulting beverage should always be as gentle and low-kinetic-energy as possible, especially for brewing methods with a primarily static brew dynamic like french press. The particles at the end of a brew have already released the desirable flavor compounds. If you forcefully stir or squeeze the coffee particles at the end of the brew, you’re much more likely to add overextraction-flavors to the brew than otherwise.
So plunge gently. If you feel even the slightest resistance due to a layer of coffee grinds building under the plunger, back off gently and press on. If you forcefully press grounds downward in the glass with the plunger, you’re forcefully extracting those grounds. So don’t do it. You’re also forcing more super-fine coffee particles (a.k.a. fines or sludge) through the mesh if you plunge hard.
Otherwise, you know what to do. 60-70 grams of coffee per liter of water, and ~200°F (±5°F) brew water to start. Final point: technique (or method) is important, but quality of coffee, quality of grinder (uniform as possible), and quality (clean) water round-out the four pillars of great coffee brewing.
Let me know in the comments how this works out for you!